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100 years ago: Morals and French writers

15 March 2024

March 14th, 1924.

THE Comte de Saint-Aulaire, the French Ambassador in London, delivered an interesting speech on French literature at the Authors’ Club on Monday night. It is commonly suggested that while English literature has a definitely moral purpose, the great French writers have little concern with moral problems and are only interested in representing and commenting on life as it is. That idea is, of course, erroneous. All great art, in whatever country it is produced, must have a moral significance. This applies to Molière as well as to Shakespeare, to Rabelais as well as to Milton, to Victor Hugo as well as to Tennyson. The French Ambassador, indeed, pointed out that three great French writers of recent times — Bourget, Barrès, and Anatole France — are all moralists as well as artists. No one will question this statement of Bourget the idealist and Barrès the Catholic nationalist. And for all the bitterness of his irony and his entire lack of faith, Anatole France is a teacher, though he delivers no sermons and suggests his morals with the subtlety of the great literary artist. Incidentally it may be noted that Henri Barbusse, the pacificist author of “Clarté” and “Le Feu”, and Romain Rolland the author of “Jean Christophe”, are certainly moralists, and that it is a remarkable sign of the times that among the most popular of modern French novelists are René Bazin the Catholic and Henri Bordeaux the Savoyard, whose romans du foyer would be considered rather dull by the subscribers to English circulating libraries.

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